Seven tips for new Catholics, from one convert to another

Catechumens hold candles during the Easter Vigil March 31 at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I came to the Easter vigil this year just as the bonfire outside the church was starting. The pews inside were all taken by then, but I found a wide enough windowsill near the front with a wall between me and most of the action. What I could see, closer up than most, was the joy, beautiful joy, and maybe some well-contained terror of the nearly two dozen catechumens entering our communion that night. I attend a university parish, and so most were college-aged; with them I remembered when I came into the church that way, too, 16 years earlier.

I remembered the years that followed. Everyone’s sojourn is different, but for me, the Easter vigil was more a beginning than an end. Finding a place in this vast and ancient church was not easy, but it has been a trial of grace, one in which the parts that were once the hardest became easier, even light and liberating.

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On Easter morning, I woke up with a handful of aphorisms in mind that might be of use to someone new to this church, from one who has been there, too—not always easily but gratefully.

Pray constantly

You may be more primed for prayer right now than most of us, but the eagerness can wear off. Even then, St. Paul does not let us off the hook from praying without ceasing. Prayer is the start of an honest Christian life.

Memorize prayers. People don’t memorize much anymore—can you even remember a phone number?—but the effort here is worth it. Aim for 10. Some of those can be the same in multiple languages, even ones you cannot speak. Some obvious ones, some not; some short, some long; some joyful, some penitential. Add some hymns to that as well. Then recite them to God and yourself whenever you can, when you are walking or waiting or sitting on the toilet, with the kind of foolish devotion that is sanity in God’s eyes.

Also, pray your own words. Catholics can be bad at this. We rely so much on official liturgies that we do not practice speaking with God ourselves. Do it alone, with friends and in public. Make sure that if someone needs you to pray with them for what they need in that moment, you know how.

I start with prayer because, trust me, you are going to need it.

The church is a creature of the Fall

I became a Catholic while the Boston Globe sex abuse revelations were coming out. If you are coming in now, you know what I’m talking about. You could only become a Catholic in this period of scandal if you understand the Fall already (or have your rosary over your eyes). You have probably seen painful disappointment among those who were raised to think the church is perfect. Many of them have left upon discovering, so viscerally, that it is not.

The church, as Pope Francis put it, is a “hospital for sinners.” Being a Catholic, including a Catholic priest, does not make anyone good. You will see lots and lots of evidence of this. Christianity is a way of declaring we want to be more worthy of what we know we will never deserve in this life. It is a commitment to strive after holiness and to help others do the same. Have no illusions. Hospitals are full of sick people.

Still, there are living saints among us in this church. They are not perfect either, but they can be really good. Find them, accept their peccadilloes, learn from them, and walk away if you need to. You will probably find them in places you least expect.

There are many churches in one

What makes the Catholic Church catholic—that is, universal—is its ability to hold together diverse cultures and diverse ways of being Christian. This is a feature, not a bug. It is a beautiful variety: Explore it, across time and geography. Among them all, find the communities and charisms that call you, that suit your talents and challenge your shortcomings. You might find your calling in the church, for instance, through a particular religious order or through a lay movement or through a way of praying or a way of serving. Make sure it is a path that is in full communion with the Catholic whole, of course, but do not be scared away by simpletons who think there is only one kind of true Catholic.

When you find your place and your people, do not forget about the rest. If you feel at home in a certain small group, go to Mass with people of many groups. If one church seems to speak your language, go from time to time to one where a different language is spoken.

Through our small-c catholicism, God teaches us about God. Sometimes God comes to us as familiar and tender, but God is also the truth that feels strange and foreign while being no less true.

Through our small-c catholicism, God teaches us about God. Sometimes God comes to us as familiar and tender, but God is also the truth that feels strange and foreign while being no less true.

Honor different paths, in the church and in yourself

As you find your place in the church, also be prepared to honor the ways of others. If you feel tempted to denounce some order or path within the church, consider what purposes it serves. Consider how it travels to people and places where your path does not go. Recognize that we are interdependent. Jesuits need Franciscans! Readers of the National Catholic Reporter could learn a thing or two from First Things.

One reason for this kind of forbearance is that you never know how your life will redirect your calling. During my early years as a Catholic, my place was among renouncers—Cistercians, first, and then radical war resisters. Those callings, however, have not fit well with the way I feel called to be a parent of small children more recently. I have had to find other saints, other ways of being. In years past, I might have looked at myself today and scoffed at my tepid moderation-in-most-things.

Get ready for that. Have mercy on yourself, and let yourself evolve among the many ways of being a Christian. This church holds them together as one.

Argue in charity

When some Christian communities encounter disagreement, they schism on a dime. Catholics don’t do that. This means we have to create spaces where debate and argument can persist without tearing us apart. That is why, for instance, Catholics invented universities, at least in Europe. Perhaps it is also why the church did not invent the internet.

We are a family, and families need to argue so the truth can come through. Some of the greatest saints—people now portrayed as benign servants of Rome, were courageous reformers in their time, challenging received beliefs and entrenched power. But a family argument only turns out well when we remember we are a family. Remember, Catholics believe that we are going to be stuck together for eternity.

This is not a private faith

It is fashionable nowadays for people to think and talk about faith as a private matter, as something solely between themselves and the divine, as a quiet way to begin the day or a personal journey that is nobody else’s business.

This is foreign to the Catholic outlook. If Jesus had kept to himself, there would have been no cross. He promised to be among us when we gather. He knew that we need each other. You will see. Your prayer life will deepen when your Christian community life is honest and vibrant. Sometimes our interior faith carries us more, and sometimes the community carries us more, but one cannot stand on one foot for too long without losing balance.

Be Catholic in public. Not just Catholic—God made you to be more than your piety. Present yourself, to yourself and the world, as a human being made more human by your faith.

I spent years embarrassed by my Catholic identity—as the dodgy disciples in the Gospel narratives foreshadow. My ambition was to sort this irregularity out through Herculean introspection and rationalization. It didn’t work. I did not really integrate my faith into my sense of self—long after entering the church officially, mind you—until being forced to present as Catholic quite vocally and uncomfortably in the world.

Know the poor

At least since Constantine’s conquest of Rome in the year 312, Catholicism has had a respectability problem. Religion needs to have a relationship with power to inhabit this fallen world, but that means people can use religion as a means to power as well. Doing so can even be for the good. Catholicism in the United States, for example, has been an important vehicle for helping immigrant communities into the middle class. A downside of that legacy, however, is how it can lead people to conflate Catholicism and classism.

Be Catholic in public. Not just Catholic—God made you to be more than your piety. Present yourself, to yourself and the world, as a human being made more human by your faith.

Christ and the prophets speak with one voice: God dwells among the poor. We must know the poor because we are the poor. Even the most privileged among us have poverty in our souls, and we forget this when we blind ourselves to the crucifixions happening all around us. Some people hide from these in mansions and private jets. Some hide in addictions and endless therapies.

Some hide in social-justice proclamations, which can be as effective as riches in masking the lived reality of poverty.

I should get off my own soapbox at this point. I do not have a litmus test to offer or even a definition, but you should know it when you see it: Even while enjoying the splendors and wonders of this church, know the poor.

Finally, welcome! Christ is risen.

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Adrian Hoppel
4 months 3 weeks ago

Fantastic piece, Nathan! This was like a splash of cold water:

"Some hide in social-justice proclamations, which can be as effective as riches in masking the lived reality of poverty."

*sigh* That hit close to home. I am going to have to spend some time thinking/praying about that one.

Thanks!

Phil Lawless
4 months 3 weeks ago

I was once a convert, too, so much of this articles seems like ground I have traversed over years. Although it presents a lot of good concepts for new converts, I do suggest all of those concepts fail to describe a course to follow when life and religion become tedious, when relationship with God seems more habitual than mutual. You may know that you are following the rules and practices of Catholicism, yet finding less satisfaction in doing so.

I am saying that converts need to seek to grow into a religious maturity and relationship with God. Maturity does take time.

Brien Doyle
4 months 3 weeks ago

But... why?
No gods have been proven to exist....
The sciences have no need of gods in Nature's processes....

Drew Hodge
4 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you, Nathan, for your wise counsel, obviously grounded in practice and experience—from a Catholic just two days old.

Kevin Schafer
4 months 3 weeks ago

As a "cradle" Catholic at 66, let me say that this was written by a "typical" converet.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 2 weeks ago

What is a "typical" convert, and how does it compare with a "cradle" Catholic such as yourself?

Irene Wilson
4 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks Nathan, for this beautiful and very full reflection on what it means to be a Catholic Christian. I am part of an RCIA team and will share this with our folks when we meet during Mystagogia.
The only other comment I would make concerns the use of the term, ‘convert’. Used properly as referring to someone coming to Catholicism from another faith such as Judaism or Hinduism the term is correct. However, for other Christians who are becoming Catholic, we do not use that term. I presume you are in the United States where the National Statutes in the Rite actually forbid use of the term except in its proper context. We do not have this subtlety in the Canadian Rite but we should!

At the beginning of the Rite there is a quote from St. Paul. “One Lord, one baptism, one faith, one God and Father of all.” (Eph. 4:5)

This distinction came home to me this summer because a number of my friends from university days still have occasional dinners together. One of the women asked another woman who came to our church from the Baptist community what it was like when she first converted. I explained this differentiation and was sincerely thanked by both women for pointing out the respect we hold for those who come from a faith that uses water and the Trinitarian formula for Baptism.

Thanks again for these wonderful thoughts, especially pointing out that the Easter Vigil is much more a beginning than an end. It is so important that we keep trying to help people become connected to the Catholic community in the ways you have pointed out and also to impress on them that we don’t divide. We have differences but like the huge family we are, we all show up at the table.

Christopher Minch
4 months 3 weeks ago

Brien Doyle1 hour 55 min ago
"But... why?
No gods have been proven to exist....
The sciences have no need of gods in Nature's processes...."

Brien,
--Gods have not been proven not to exist either--at least according to the great thinkers that I have heard about.
--You are right gods do not need to be involved in nature's processes however if God is immaterial then God could be involved and we would not even know it. Perhaps as Einstein mused it may be all miracle or not at all. God may prefer it that way so that we don't have to believe in Him/Her if we don't want to. I think God wants us to make the free will choice of finding Him/Her as a friend in life too. He'll never force this on you--only others try to do that thinking wrongly I think that God needs this from us.
--And finally, I read somewhere that in answer to prayer God never answers the "Why" question. But is more often in prayer to provide understandings and answers in terms of how and what can be done, which often seem much more to the point. And meditation can do the same thing but if you take the big step in belief then God is there too whether you choose to believe or not.

Nathan, these are all good points and practices for all believers, thank you! I came back to the Catholic Church after not practicing for 10 years. I always felt that coming back was a way of actually choosing my faith rather than having had it foisted on me as a cradle Catholic. It forced me to re-examine all of it, the good and the bad. This child abuse scandal has been especially hard on my faith and my belief in a holy Catholic Church. I am still re-working this with my hope in God's mercy for all of us.

Lach Satsuma
4 months 3 weeks ago

Well, "the church as a creature of the Fall" is not the True Church. Only the heretic and schismatic churches are those of the Fall. Have no illusions, the true and genuine catholics, though sometimes fall, make all effort to rise from that "fall"... and this is a reality because only our Church (by big C) is founded by God Jesus, who is a Person of the Most Holy Trinity. That conviction has 1930 years of uninterrupted history (till Vat.II), while your understanding and alike, are not orthodox, they're novelistic, neo-modernist and transient like all sociological and political notions and organizations. Recommend you and al, the letter of pope emeritus Ben XVI of Apr. 11-th 2019. It explains the true nature of truly Catholic Church.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 2 weeks ago

"...but do not be scared away by simpletons who think there is only one kind of true Catholic." He was referring to Catholics like you Lach.

Crystal Watson
4 months 3 weeks ago

I joined the church about 20 years ago but I don't go anymore. The way women are treated, gay people are treated, the sex abuse problem - nothing has changed for the better in those 20 years. A private faith is possible. Jesus spent a lot of his time praying alone out of doors, and the Jesuits over the centuries have made personal and private prayer a practice.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 2 weeks ago

I go, but constantly wonder why (for the same reasons you don't go).

CATHERIN WRIGHT
4 months 3 weeks ago

Nathan, you and I became Catholics on the same night 16 years ago and yes, it has been quite the journey. I've spent eleven of the years since leading RCIA at my parish. I've been profoundly blessed to have shared in so many other people's journeys into Catholicism. I tell them that becoming Catholic is like jumping into the ocean--there are so many riches to explore that one can never learn or experience it all. And it is most definitely an act of surrender, into the loving, but mysterious arms of God.
Your piece is a wonderful welcome for new Catholics. Thanks so much for writing it!

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 2 weeks ago

Well put Catherin.

John Chuchman
4 months 3 weeks ago

If you stay (chances are you won’t) stay LOUDLY, when you leave, leave LOUDLY.
Eventually you will need open honest dialog and spiritual nurturing
Don’t abandon your focus on this life in order to earn your way in the next.

Nora Bolcon
4 months 3 weeks ago

Dear Nathan,

First of all welcome to you and all converts.

I was born into Catholicism so my outlook may be a bit different.

I agree with much of your statement but there are parts where I would suggest you think again.

Being a women who was and is called to ordained priesthood from the time she was fifteen, I can tell you that all sexism scars and abuses just as all racism does. This is why Jesus demands all christians be treated the same or we sin against God when we don't do this. So this means our church hurts and scars it's own women while it refuses to ordain women the same as men so don't let any Catholic, even the Pope cause you to sin by encouraging you to not fight against this evil in our church.

You could learn a few things from woman's ordination worldwide WOW or WOC or from NCR.

You might want to try out charismatic prayer worship since you don't mind speaking or praying in languages of which you are illiterate. I gain a great deal of joy from these gifts of The Holy Spirit.

Read the Bible but with God always praying before you read. Seek God's interpretation not any priests or anyone elses.

Lastly and most importantly, Catholicism is similar to democracy in that it improves or degrades based on its believers willingness to love and care for it and their willingness to see where it most needs fixing and stand up for it to be fixed against all forces which may resist it's needs.

Mike Macrie
4 months 3 weeks ago

Nora, I agree with you that there is no reason why women cannot be ordained as Priests. The Gospels tell us especially around the Easter Season the strength of women in the early Church.
“According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary Magdalene. In the gospels, especially the synoptics, women play a central role as eyewitnesses at Jesus' death, entombment, and in the discovery of the empty tomb”. During the Crucifixion while the Apostles were in hiding, it was the women who stayed with Jesus till his death.
“While the total number of priests worldwide has therefore remained about the same since 1970, the Catholic population has nearly doubled, growing from 653.6 million in 1970 to 1.229 billion in 2012. In 2012 the global number of candidates for the priesthood also showed its first decline in recent years.
The Catholic Church in North America however, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991, 45,713 in 2001 and 37,192 in 2015”. Out of pure necessity, the Catholic Church needs to get out of the Middle Ages and allow women to be Priests.
It won’t be Pope Francis to make this leap of Faith for he’s already being accused of Heresy by the Conservative Forces in the Church. But the time is coming that it will happen on its own in order for the Church to serve the needs of its People.

Ryan Kendall
4 months 3 weeks ago

The tips created by the catholic has been on the path to redemption but there are several challenges that they face.
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Harry Whelpley
4 months 3 weeks ago

Although not a convert, your article helped strengthen my faith in these trying times. Thank you.

Hap Whelpley
Northern Virginia

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